TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Miranda Lambert's new album "Four the Record" is her first new collection of songs since 2009's "Revolution," which won Album of the Year prizes from the Academy of Country Music Awards and the Country Music Association Awards. In the time between the release of these two albums, Lambert married country star Blake Shelton and became one of Nashville's most prominent stars. Rock critic Ken Tucker says that Lambert is still not a typical Nashville country act, as "Four the Record" proves.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "EASY LIVING")
MIRANDA LAMBERT: (Singing) The weatherman says rain today. We'll saddle up and be on our way. What's a little rain to a high riding rebel or two? 'Cause it's easy living, easy loving you.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: "Four the Record" - Miranda Lambert spells it F-O-U-R to emphasize that this is her fourth album - is a transitional collection for Lambert. Her preceding three played up the idea of Miranda as a good ol' gal with an explosive emotional streak. You saw it in titles like "Kerosene," "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and "Gunpowder and Lead." "Four The Record" is an album whose subtext is all about coming to terms with the expectations of her audience, and with her expectations for herself as a performer wanting to broaden her subject matter, to work in more varied styles.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "MAMA'S BROKEN HEART")
LAMBERT: (Singing) I cut my bangs with some rusty kitchen scissors. I screamed his name till the neighbors called the cops. I numbed the pain at the expense of my liver. Don't know what I'll do next; all I know I couldn't stop. Word got around to the barflies and the Baptists. My mama's phone started ringing off the hook. I can hear her now saying she ain't gonna have it. Don't matter how you feel, it only matters how you look.
Go and fix your makeup, girl, it's just a breakup. Run and hide your crazy and start acting like a lady 'cause I raised you better. Gotta keep it together even when you fall apart. But this ain't my mama's broken heart.
TUCKER: That's Miranda Lambert reaching for some common ground between country music and Kurt Weill on "Mama's Broken Heart." If the lyrics hew to Lambert's well-established rebel-girl image - the salient line here is, sometimes revenge is a choice you gotta make - its beat and rhythm aren't your standard Grand Ole Opry fare. Neither are the pop power-ballad moments on another song, "Safe," or the pleasantly intricate wordplay that Lambert navigates on "All Kinds of Kinds."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "ALL KINDS OF KINDS")
LAMBERT: (Singing) Ilsa was acrobat who went and fell in love with that Horatio the human cannonball. The wedding 'neath the big top tent, with barkers, clowns, and elephants, sideshow family oddities and all. The dog-faced boy howled out with joy as the tattooed lady was crying. Ever since the beginning to keep the world spinning, it takes all kinds of kinds.
TUCKER: "Four the Record" contains the lowest number of Lambert compositions per album. She wrote 11 of the 12 songs on her debut disc; 8 out of 11 on her second album; 11 out of 15 on "Revolution." Of the 15 songs on "Four the Record," Lambert wrote or co-wrote 6, 7 if you buy the so-called deluxe edition.
Combine this with the more uneven quality of this album, and it is tempting to think Lambert hasn't had the time or inspiration to keep up with the pace of her career. But the thing is, in country music, it's unusual for a star to write the bulk of his or her own material. Nashville is a songwriter's town, and Lambert has excellent taste in picking songs to cover. If anything, the ones she didn't write here work best at burnishing her strong woman-with-wit image.
I'm thinking of the revenge-themed "Mama's Broken Heart," and the Gillian Welch/Dave Rawlings composition "Look At Miss Ohio," with its more-in-sorrow-than-in-joy refrain, "I wanna do right but not right now."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "LOOK AT MISS OHIO")
LAMBERT: (Singing) Oh, me oh my, oh, would you look at Miss Ohio. She's running around with her ragtop down. She says I want to do right but not right now. I'm going to drive to Atlanta and live out this fantasy. Running around with your ragtop down. Yeah, I want to do right but not right now.
TUCKER: Lambert is careful to cover a certain number of bases. There's the album's first single, "Baggage Claim," that plays with the idea of carrying dead weight as a metaphor for an exhausted romance. She even ventures a little avant-garde-y, with the fuzzed, filtered vocals on a number called "Fine Tune."
On the other hand, there's a duet with her charming husband, Blake Shelton. Someday, I hope soon, those two will record a duet album in the grand tradition of Tammy Wynette and George Jones. In the meantime, Lambert seems determined not to settle too comfortably into her stardom without stepping on a few toes, even if they happen to be those of her fans.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Miranda Lambert's new album called "Four the Record."
I'm Terry Gross.